Did you know that our brains are constantly re-wiring themselves, changing and developing every single day? So every day is an opportunity to create a ‘new you’, or at least make some improvements on the current version!
Neuroscientists refer to our brain as being plastic. By this they mean that it is mouldable, that it can be re-moulded over and over again depending on our needs. Years ago we used to think that our brains were hardwired by the time we hit early adulthood. By then all the connections our brain needed were set and hardwired and could not be changed. Perhaps this is where the phrase ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ came from?
But here’s the exciting thing….we CAN teach an old dog new tricks. We CAN upgrade our existing behaviours to be in line with what we want to achieve. We CAN change those behaviours we don’t like!
This does sound great doesn’t it? So how on earth do we go about re-wiring our brain? Surely that’s a job for an expert?
To an extent, yes, but you’d be surprised how much you can do yourself. Think of it as like the wiring in your house – if you needed to get electricity to a new extension or the whole house needed re-wiring then yes, you’d have to call in the experts. But if you just wanted to rewire a plug or change a fuse then that is something you can do yourself with a bit knowledge and practise.
So how do you go about re-wiring your brain?
Think of the connections in your brain as being like a series of pathways. The pathways you go down regularly are well worn, easy to go down. They are your automatic ways of being.
But let’s say you wanted to do something differently, to create a new pathway that isn’t there. Firstly we need to know where that pathway is going, what is at the end of it and why it would be worth going down. It’s going to take some effort. There are no two ways about it, creating a new pathway requires energy and focus so we have to have a good enough reason to do it.
Think of yourself as being in a nature reserve with acres of meadows to explore and lots of lovely easy paths to follow. But then you see something, a shiny exciting looking object that you want to get to on the other side of a field, with no pathway to get to it. If you’re going to trek across that overgrown grass and mounds it’s got to be worth it!
Once we know what our new pathway is going to be and where it is going to take us then we need to make it easy to go down. The first time we cross that field it’s going to take us lots of effort, there might be hidden obstacles in our way, brambles and hummocks that weren’t obvious before we started. But each time we go down that new pathway it gets easier, that pathway is clearer, we have worked out the best way around the obstacles or removed them altogether.
And whilst we’re busy going down our new pathway we are no longer going down the old pathway so that one starts to overgrow. That one starts to become difficult to go down and the new pathway becomes the easier one to go down. And once that path has been left derelict for some time the magic of neuroplasticity really kicks in. You see our brain doesn’t like to see its precious and limited resources go to waste so it takes all the materials used in that old pathway and it prunes them away, permanently removing that old pathway and re-using the materials to create new pathways elsewhere in the brain.
This is what is happening in your brain when you are forming new behaviours!
So let’s say you wanted to be a fitter, healthier you, one that can run a 10k or go on a trekking holiday (your shiny object on the other side of the field), you know that you need to do something different to get there, maybe better eating habits (the new pathway you need to take in order to reach your goal). You might choose to start by eating a healthy lunch every day. But you don’t know what to eat or where you can buy healthy lunches (the obstacles on your path). So you do some research, decide it’s best to make your own lunches, make a meal plan, go shopping and resolve to make your lunch every day (the initial effort you need to put in).
To start with you have to really focus on this new task. You have to figure out the best time to do it (perhaps whilst you’re preparing your dinner the night before), remember to do it and plan ahead to make sure you have everything you need. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes, the more it becomes part of your normal daily routine (your new pathway is created) and you start to wonder what on earth you used to do for lunch before (your old pathway gets removed).
This is neuroplasticity, the process your brain goes through when it is re-wiring itself.
So a simple re-wiring task requires you to know your end point, which makes getting there as easy as possible by removing any obstacles and a concerted effort to repeat the task often enough for it to form that lovely new pathway.